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New York Times Review

ART IN REVIEW; 'SOFA New York 2002' - May 31, 2002
By Roberta Smith

Is craft a four-letter word? That's one implication of the circuitous title of the International Exposition of Sculpture Objects and Functional Art, the most rambunctious and unfocused of the annual fairs that pile into the Seventh Regiment Armory. Now in its fifth year, SOFA bulges with the elaborately handmade: ceramics, furniture, glass, jewelry, textiles, fiber art and other instances of flamboyant uselessness by some of the craft world's biggest names and freshest talents.

The overall effect is a volatile mix of art and craft and of greatness and tackiness -- occasionally in the same object, like the gorgeously prismatic cut-crystal sculptures of Christopher Reis at the Holsten booth. Helen Drutt is honoring the ceramist Rudolf Staffel (1936-96) with a luminous display of his quirky handbuilt porcelain vases, as well as introducing the delightful carved-acrylic-resin wrist-candy (bracelets) of Peter Chang, a British jeweler with an international reputation, who has become known here over the last decade.

The fair is a contest between trompe l'oeil wizardry and truth-to-materials integrity, pointless replications of traditional techniques and genuine innovation. (There is also pointless innovation: the awful faux-African objects by William Morris, at Heller, mimic materials like metal and gourds but are made entirely of blown glass.) Dante Marioni's classical pitchers and chalices at Holsten take Murano opticality to new levels in color, pattern and distortion. At Mobilia, Sarah Perkins brings a thoroughly modern lack of perfection to enamel silver bowls, while Jan Hopkins makes a medium her own with orange-peel teapots.

Tellingly, the best booth is Douglas Dawson's, a selection of astounding noncontemporary Asian, African and pre-Columbian objects, among them a Nigerian ancestor post, a beaded Yoruba fertility figure and a wise-eyed prehistoric limestone figure from the Celebes. His New Guinea shaman's bag and Mongolian and Berber tie-dye fabrics could inaugurate a fascinating textile-fiber art tour that would include Browngrotta's fiber art and a tiny tapestry by Missy Stevens at Nancy Margolis.

At Tai, which has an early Kubo dance skirt and Pygmy bark drawings, the extension of Japanese bamboo basketry into modern sculpture is evident in the work of artists like Jin Morigami, Osamu Goto and Kenichi Nagakura. At Del Mano, search out the small psychedelic thread-in-wax sculptures of Michael Bailot among the veritable who's who of wood bowls, starting with several pieces by Edward Moulthrop.

Forays in wood continue at Moderne, with furniture by Wharton Esherick, Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof and George Nakashima, whose huge buckeye burl table is one of the show's masterpieces; at Finer Things, with Brad Sells's rippling carved-wood bowls; and at Leo Kaplan with Tommy Simpson's furniture and Mr. Castle's new, barely functional sculptures. At Franklin Parrasch, Ken Price weighs in with an undulating green ceramic piece that brings to mind Duchamp's urinal.

In the end, it doesn't matter if you call it art or craft; presence is what counts, and it can be found in nearly every booth.

© Published: 05/31/2002, Late Edition - Final, Section E, Column 1, Page 39

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